This morning was the last day of the trip we were guiding for our Honeyguides group, so a good opportunity to meet Lola and Alijandro at Fundacion Migres, our conservation partners and the organisation benefitting from a donation from the trip’s proceeds.
En route to our meeting we treated the group to a swift detour to visit a colony of Drosophyllum lusitanicum, a quasi-endemic carnivorous plant which we thought they would be interested to see. Apart from populations in Portugal and Northern Morocco, this endangered plant species is only recorded in this part of Spain. It is becoming increasingly rare due to habitat destruction, and has been lost from many of its previously known strongholds in the region. It differs from other sundews because it grows in dry, stony, calcareous habitats rather than the acid conditions in the marshes and bogs which are the usual habitat for other carnivorous plants.
In common with other sundew species, Portuguese Sundew catches its small insect prey by entrapping them with a sticky substance that emanates from the leaves and stem. Once trapped the insects become asphyxiated and, following death, are eventually digested by enzymes in the leaves of the plant. The group was able to witness this sinister little plant trapping flies first hand. We also managed our first views of Crested Tits, which despite being omnipresent in the area had only been heard up until this point.
At Migres HQ, director Lola gave the group a tour of the facilities where they are able to house the international volunteers who help them with monitoring the twice-yearly passage of birds. Alijandro then gave a brief but fascinating presentation on the species and numbers involved and the work of Migres to ensure this spectacle is monitored, researched and protected for the future. We also got to meet Bartholo, a charming rescued eagle owl, which sadly will never fly again due to a gunshot wound to the wing, but now helps out at Migres in a public relations role.
After posing for a group photo, we moved on to the cliffs at Vejer de la Barca. Here we visited a breeding colony of Northern Bald Ibis, a fantastic quirky bird with iridescent black plumage and a superb punk hair-do reminiscent of something out of Mad Max. These birds are the product of a successful reintroduction scheme in the area, and the rarest species we were likely to see on the trip – the 80 or so pairs now breeding in this area being a large chunk of the remainder of the world’s population. They have expanded out of the original reintroduction site and now have nest sites right by the road into the village, so the group was able to observe and photograph these strange creatures at close hand.
After a refreshing coffee we headed for our next site at the nearby salt pans at Barbate. To our delight a confiding group of Northern Bald Ibis were foraging on the farmland around the entrance to the site, so we left the group to wander amongst them while the final trademark picnic of the trip was prepared, overlooking a close-by group of Audouin’s Gulls.
While we ate the group enjoyed views of Sanderling and Dunlin as well as Grey, Golden, Common Ringed and Kentish Plovers, Greater Flamingoes in flight and flybys from Painted Lady and Spanish Festoon butterflies. Elsewhere on the site we found Spanish Sparrows amongst a flock of House Sparrows, and had smashing views of a Black-eared Wheatear perched up on the fence.
There were numerous raptors aloft by now, and it was becoming apparent that something was causing Griffon Vultures to gather in large numbers. The flocks included three Egyptian Vultures, and to our delight we found one of the Greater Spotted Eagles that have been recorded wintering in the area.
We decided to investigate the source of temptation for the gathering vultures. Rounding the corner it soon became apparent what all the fuss was about. On a facing hillside was the carcass of a cow, with perhaps fifty individuals tucking into the remains or simply lounging about digesting their spoils, their white heads stained red. Even more dramatically though, in the field next to us a cow had just given birth to two calves. They were so newly born that they were still struggling to stand up, and their feeble attempts were attracting a great deal of unwanted attention from the vultures, who were shuffling ever closer to see whether another meal could be had.
Mother cow was frantic, trying to tend to both calves, which were far enough apart that she couldn’t defend both of them at once. To our amazement the whole heard eventually rallied round, and the vultures were relegated to a safe distance till both calves were up and about.
This dramatic turn of events marked the end of our visit to Barbate, and we returned to Huerta Grande to enjoy chef Juan Carlos’s evening meal for one last time, before giving the group their send-off in the morning.
Does this sound like your kind of adventure? Come see us in the Straits this Spring or Autumn, or if vultures are your thing then grab a chance to witness the unknown vulture migration spectacle this October…